There is no similar masterpiece ever written which would be equal in its depth of philosophical thought and idea than John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The fact that it was first published in 1667, more than three centuries ago, does not undermine or diminish the value of this great work in the modern era. The scope of the work is galaxy like as the events take place in heaven, hell, chaos and on the earth, in addition the story described is covering the events of thousands of years of men experiencing their disgraceful fall and loosing God’s gift to live in Paradise and be close to God himself.
The structure of the poem, which consist of twelve original books enables the reader to easier understand the course of events of the man’s gradual descend and final banishment from the Garden of Eden. Milton’s intentions to justify the ways of God to men were set at the beginning of his epic work. His most powerful justifications are preserved for the last book. The didactics of the book is represented through the implications of the necessity of religion and of the man’s duty to be submissive and faithful to God.
The introductory lines in Book I indicate and set forth Milton’s intention for writing his Paradise Lost. The author asks the divine spirit for help before starting to retell the story of Adam and Eve: “I may assert Eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to men”.
Milton was analyzing events of his own time and saw many flaws and a contradictory state of affairs in contemporary society. He was questioning the whole state system and vigorously wondered how it could be possible that evil powers were triumphing. Milton’s masterpiece Paradise Lost emerged from the pure need to justify the ways of God to men. The author had the belief that his only master was “natural God” and not the earthly king or monarch, so these ideas were conveyed within the light of God’s ways to men in Paradise Lost.
The usage of contradictions by the author is neither chaotic nor unintentional. They play a special role in intensifying feelings and exacerbating the issues raised in the poem. Presenting ideas by usage of contradiction, or a rhetorical figure of literature called oxymoron, has been widely used in literature and especially in poetry of the 17th century. This figure is very close to paradox and antithesis.
Adam’s understanding of his transgression makes his soul consciously suffer. His conscious understanding and acceptance of the fact of being punished indicates the lines 726-727, where Adam utters, “I deserved it, and would bear My own deservings”. However, later in the poem Milton elaborates on such a penalty as living death and concludes that it would be probably impossible since all the men are mortals: “Wrath without end on Man, whom death must end? Can he make deathless death?”. There is explanation of the meaning of endless death as “endless misery” in line 810.
Milton points out to the fact that even though God is eternal and almighty, at the same time he cannot feel angry with man eternally, thus any evidence or assumptions that Adam will suffer endlessly are vague and lack logical support. Further, Milton leads to the assumption that it would be quite unnatural for just, merciful, and, at the same time, powerful God to be perpetually angry. So, he states a rhetorical question “Will he draw out, For anger’s sake, finite to infinite, In punished Man, to satisfy his rigour, Satisfied never?”.
Milton’s masterpiece introduces complex themes of interrelation of divine power represented by God and position of a man within the vision of almighty and omnipotent God. His flow of thoughts has logical order, however the ideas are intertwined in such a way that it is difficult to find out what the author actually implies by saying this or that. Bryson, in his book The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King, stresses that Milton’s intention was not simply to justify God’s actions towards man; his plan is rather to show injustice of man towards God, which is made clear already in the last book XII. Man had to go a long way having descended from Paradise and this way can be described as the way of many doubts, hopes, thoughts, and reevaluations of what God had gave man and what he eventually was deprived of as the result of his transgression and disobedience.
The story told by Michael in Book X reveals the vision of Adam and Eve’s future. He mentions second coming and the destiny of the Saviour, God’s son, who will come to take all the sins of humankind and suffer for their sins:
who comes thy Saviour, shall recure,
Not by destroying Satan, but his works
In thee, and in thy seed.
The Saviour will not come to fight with the Satan as man would imagine. His primer goal would be to destroy Satan inside every man who is noticed by his wrongdoings, bad thoughts and words. The unjust and disgraceful deed of Adam before God was acknowledged by Eve in her plea to Adam, “thou to me Art all things under Heaven, all places thou, Who for my willful crime art banished hence.
The contradiction expressed in lines 798-799 “Can he make deathless Death?… Strange contradiction”¦” has the same intention as the one described already. Adam in this instance is questioning God’s power of making Death deathless, which is rather impossible. At the same time, he questions his false assumptions concerning God being eternally angry. However, as it was already said, Adam fears such a punishment as deathless Death. Being an ordinary human being he fears it would be too difficult to accept such punishment. Deathless Death in understanding of the first man is something like “both Death and I
Am found eternal, and incorporate both. He fears to believe that such an outcome could be true. Moreover, Adam is really concerned with the destiny of the humankind which would be punished for one man’s transgression: “why should all mankind, For one man’s fault, thus guiltless be condemned, It guiltless?”. By the end of Book X, Adam and Eve agree on God being truly just and on their deeds being turned not only against God, but against themselves, as they blamed only themselves in what had happened to them after the transgression. Moreover, the first couple agreed that God’s punishment was not a part of a cruel plan against them:
Remember with what mild
And gracious temper he both heard, and judged,
Without wrath or reviling; we expected
Immediate dissolution, which we thought
Was meant by death that day.
God had to punish them after what they had done against his will. At the same time, God let them hope for redemption. All of God’s actions are proven to be very just according to Milton’s representation of the relationships between the first people, Satan and God within Paradise Lost. However, there are quite opposite interpretations of Milton’s intentions and justifications of the ways of God to men. For instance, one of the thoughts expressed in the book The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King by Bryson is that “Milton is appropriating and reversing the process through which Man is reconciled to God”. Such a view suggests that Milton wanted to make equal a man and God by questioning and lowering the rank of the latter one.
Another example of contradiction is in lines 62-63 of Book I: “As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames No light; but rather darkness visible”. Visible darkness is one more example of oxymoron used by Milton to better represent the hell in the eyes of Satan. No light of flames is also contradiction here. So, what is seen is the great furnace flamed, however there is not light out of it, which is impossible to imagine. Further, Milton wants the readers to see the darkness visible in the place of light of flames. The vision is really contradictory and arguable. However, his further description of hell as “darkness visible” is clarified in the following lines 65-66: “Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace And rest can never dwell, hope never comes”. Milton’s vision of hell is based on his knowledge in the field of history and religion.
Further lines explain partially why the place is such as it is: “Such place Eternal Justice has prepared For those rebellious”. Thus, the place which is hell is some kind of prison for those who disobey God, for instance, such as the first people, Adam and Eve. The place was created by one God, who is the king of everything alive and of existing in universe. The writer is thus justifying God’s decisions made concerning sinful people and his justification is based on the fact that if He is God, then He is right and just.
Another view is that visibility of darkness seems to be a mistake done by Milton. The reference to darkness as to something that is clear and visible does not appear to be just a mistake however. Miton’s desire to make people see the things that they do not want to see and are not able to see. The ability to see invisible and something that is hidden from human eyes is one more feature of Milton’s unique talent.
Milton dwells in the world of his own. The blindness of people to the things Milton easily notices pushes him to apply the oxymoron as was mentioned before — the combination of two contradictory notions play an irreplaceable role in his poems. The comparison of two different realities is Milton’s technique. So, it is no a big wonder that oxymoron becomes one of Milton’s favorite poetic devices.
“Darkness visible” can be also explained as the reality visible. In other words, Milton leads the reader to the conclusion that hell is around us. “The flames of hell emitted no light” is one more line can catch particular attention. While reading through this line one can feel that the hell is around people. It is invisible since there is no light what means that there are not any kinds of features that indicate on the presence of hell. Hell can be everywhere, and the human eye that got accustomed to seeing only visible objects might be unable to perceive the hell. The only excuse for that is “the flames of burning sulphur”. The whole idea of the usage of this oxymoron is the depiction of the dreadful image of hell as the place of exile of sinners and fallen angels. His intention is to show the contrast between God’s place which is paradise and Satan’s place — hell, which should not be a place of destination of a faithful man.
The contradictions within Milton’s Paradise Lost have a special role which is brining important themes from the shadows into the light of consideration and reexamination by the reader. Another example of contradiction which appears in Book IV is in the following statement: Evil, be thou my good; by thee at least. Evil cannot be good as these are two opposite notions. Thus, Milton used contradiction to put a special emphasis in this particular place of his poem. The words were uttered by Satan, who used to be an angel once and who because of his sinful deed was discarded into Hell. So, this evil spirit was full of anger and despair, as he knew that God created people and placed them to live in the Garden of Eden making the evil spirit feel envy.
Satan was very proud and did not want to ask for redemption, thus there was only one place in universe open for him, which was hell. With the feeling of despair he concludes that evil is his only good, or the last resort in his exile. While he was speaking, the emotions were changing on his face: “Thrice changed with pale, ire, envy, and despair”. His feelings are difficult to imagine as he was on the highest level of divinity and fell down to the very bottom of disgrace and sinfulness. It is only this one evil spirit that had a chance to experience both divinity and sinfulness to the fullest degree of these both notions.